Why what you learnt about yourself might be all wrong

We are brilliant learners.

If we are lucky we can grow up to become physicists, philosophers, saints or sages.

Unfortunately for us we learn the important lessons in life, who we are and what life is all about, at a time when we are least capable of making sense of it.

The conclusions we come to can bless us or blight us.

The Downside Of Evolution

We are evolved beings, we have survived and thrived against all the odds through our long evolutionary journey.

We have large brains and it takes us a long time for them to mature. Our faculties of judgement don’t fully mature until we are in our early twenties. So we have very long childhoods to give us time to upload our cultural software.

Throughout this process we are dependent on our caregivers for survival and learning life’s lessons, but we don’t get to choose which lessons we learn.

Over our long history we needed to survive many dangers, so many of our learning abilities are oriented towards survival, we needed to be able to find food, shelter, a mate, be part of a tribe and to avoid being eaten by predators.

As a child we are dependent on our caregivers for our physical survival and to learn all the skills so we can be part of the tribe and carry the whole process on. What we learnt was critical to our survival and that of our tribe, conditions were tough and learning how to be safe and survive was the most important thing.

Since we came down from the trees millions of years ago these requirements have dominated human life. Only recently with the advent of civilisation, settled life, farming, has life got more social – more complicated.

Children Are At A Disadvantage

As children learning life’s lessons we have a number of disadvantages:

We are dependent: we depend on our caregivers for everything, as babies we are helpless we get what we are given. As children we are dependent on our caregivers for our physical and social needs. We need their physical support and approval to grow into adulthood.

We are suggestible: as children we are hugely suggestible, soaking up everything like a sponge is an effective way to learn. Thus our abilities and understanding balloon once this process starts. Unfortunately we take in everything without discrimination. What ever experiences and learnings are available are sucked up, regardless of their quality.

We don’t have much experience: as children we don’t have much experience of life, we look to our caregivers for explanations and the informed view about how the world works. We don’t have good ways of testing the reality of the things we are learning for ourselves so we have take our caregivers word for it.

We learn many things in our childhood: what a cow is, that horses eat grass, that cars go brmm, brmm, who made the world, where Africa is and so on.

We also learn:

Values: what’s important (to us and our family and tribe)

Responses: our responses to events. If your dad raises his fist then you are going to cower in fear. If your mum screams when she sees a mouse then that is the appropriate response to mice.

Beliefs about the world: What causes things to happen and what things mean. If you do badly at school mummy will be disappointed. If I win the race dad will be proud of me.

Beliefs about your self: I am a good boy, I am not good enough, there is something wrong with me,

Personal rules: What is expected of me. How I can earn approval or avoid disapproval. What is appropriate behaviour.

The configuration of these values, responses, beliefs and rules will be a uniquely individual mix depending on your upbringing and circumstances.

If you are lucky you will learn a supportive and encouraging mix which lets you thrive and prosper.

If you are not so fortunate you may collect a mixed bag of encouragement and discouragement, permissions and denials.

If you are very unfortunate you may learn a poisonous set lessons that blight your life.

Some ideas are hard to change

A lot of our factual understanding of the world is updated as we go through life. We learn that the sun doesn’t go round the earth as it first appears, that there is no Santa – we usually find ways to update these understandings.

Unfortunately the important stuff – who we are and the way the world works – isn’t so easily updated.

Learnt so early and so well, it becomes the fabric of our world, unquestioned and unchanged. Patterns learnt in childhood can persist through our entire lives.

Fortunately they are not set in stone. What was learnt can be un-learnt and re-learnt from a more informed perspective.

The history of psychotherapy from Freud onwards has been various attempts to help people transcend their original learning.

If you find yourself thinking – I’m not good enough, there is something wrong with me, I am a bad person. Consider for a moment or two that this is something that you learnt. No matter how convincing these thoughts are to you, you were not born with them. It is something you picked up along the way, from people who were living out their own learnt patterns.

They can be changed and that’s what therapy is all about.

To find out more about who I work with and the kind of therapy I do click here.

Image courtesy of VinothChandar

3 thoughts on “Why what you learnt about yourself might be all wrong”

    • Hi Peggy, I enjoyed your article. I think you are right that we acknowledge that our younger selves were all doing the best they could with the skills they had at the time.

      In a culture with so much blame around, it’s very easy for us to blame ourselves for the patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour that we picked when we were kids, fogetting that we were just kids and we could only do the best we could do. After all, what adult asks a toddler for advice on how live their lives?

      Thanks for taking the time to write the article.


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